Relating, Creating, Transforming

I recently had a conversation with my friend, Lucas Mangum, the author of FLESH AND FIRE, MANIA, ENGINES OF RUIN, GODS OF THE DARK WEB, and WE ARE THE ACCUSED. The collection, Engines of Ruin, was just released in paperback on January 5 (the Kindle edition has been out since December).

Lucas’ newest novel We Are the Accused was released on January 15th.

You can find the rest of his books on Amazon and you can also follow his blog Cranky but Cultured.

[Our conversation was transcribed and not edited so as to capture the true spirit of it]

JOSH:
Lucas, I’m curious to know if there is a book that you can remember—not necessarily the first one you read, but a book that definitely made you cry.

LUCAS:
I will mention two—I don’t remember if I actually cried but I do remember being deeply affected by first The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and also by another called Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. First, O’Dell’s book I think primarily affected me because of the violence and because it was my first exposure to real tragedy and stuff like that. Stepping on the Cracks was a book that really affected me because it was the first time I really experienced the magic of storytelling, the way she sets things up. There are these expectations early on this book and then she kind of turns them on their head, but it doesn’t happen in a way that makes it seem like it comes out of nowhere. She surprised me, but it makes sense.  

JOSH:
I’m wondering–I’m not a writer but I’m an actor and a performer and so, I know for me that when I’m doing stage work it definitely energizes me. So I’m wondering if for you the writing practice gives you energy or, when you’re finished writing, are you exhausted?

LUCAS:
You know, lately it’s been doing nothing but energizing me. It’s weird, but now I want to write more. I don’t know if it’s because I finally like got my voice or hit my stride or whatever you want to call it; it’s been like this for the last 6 months. I’ve been very, very productive always wanting to continue doing things. For example, I started doing this new thing just after I finished another piece. I’m ready to move on to another one and I’ve never done that before; I’m just compelled to do it.

JOSH:
So this is the first time that you have felt that type of energy when you finish a project, i.e. you are ready for another.

LUCAS:
Yeah, before I would get this temporary high, but I would definitely have crashes as well. But this doesn’t feel like that now, it’s different.

JOSH:
Your writing obviously crosses over some genres. How did you get to that point? When you started writing, were you attracted to horror typically or was it just kind of writing in general?

LUCAS:
I guess it was always writing in general, though I definitely was into the spookier things in life. I actually recently chronicled my long-standing relationship with horror in a poem called Halloween Poem and it was featured on the Heavy Feather Review last October. tI’ve definitely been expanding to other genres and I recently wrote a romance novel. I’ve been trying my hand with a few other genres like short story form as well, but horror is definitely something I come back to.

JOSH:
You get this question a lot but it’s worth mentioning: who are some strong influences for you?

LUCAS:
So I guess you know Stephen King would be the obvious one of course, but there’s this movie from the eighties called Killer Klowns from Outer Space and it made me incredibly happy. I actually just recently re-watched it and I still absolutely love it.

JOSH:
That reveals a lot about you, Lucas [laughter].

LUCAS:
There is a lot of stuff that I like that isn’t, you know, spooky. I also like stuff that has a sense of humor as well. I’ve only recently started to incorporate more of a sense of humor into my work. Indeed, a lot of my stuff tends more towards the bleak side of things but some of the last few pieces I’ve done have been–I don’t want to say lighter–but definitely there has been a bit more humor providing some comic relief.  

JOSH:
So all your different writings, are they pretty much stand-alone pieces or are there connections between the stuff you’ve written?

LUCAS:
You know I often toy with the idea of tying them all together but the idea of trying to compile an expansive work like the Labyrinth stories or JRR Tolkien’s work is really intimidating for me. But I kind of end up doing it on the subconscious level anyway you know, coming from my head of course these stories exist in some sort of connected way I would imagine.

JOSH:
So you don’t intentionally do that.

LUCAS:
No, not really, no.

JOSH:
Now that you’re older [you’re still young], but if you could think back as far as you can when you first started writing, what would you tell that younger Lucas about writing?

LUCAS:
I’m tempted to tell him to get a bit more serious about learning the craft a little earlier but at the same time I don’t think I really regret anything. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll leave time traveling to the guy from Quantum Leap then.

JOSH:
So you’re probably more of a process-oriented person. And having no regrets is also a good thing.

LUCAS:
I don’t recommend some of the choices I made but I don’t regret them either.

JOSH:
After your first work was published, did that change things for you in terms of the way that you carried out your process?

LUCAS:
You know, after my first publication, Flesh and Fire–

After that I started second-guessing myself a little bit more. I thought it was a pretty good novel but I sort of built it up in my mind so much that I started thinking that I’d never be able to repeat that success.

JOSH:
What is one of the novels that people should know about?

LUCAS:
That’s easy. Come Closer by Sara Gran is absolutely frightening. It’s about a woman who may be possessed, and it’s all told in first-person from her point of view. You kind of get the impression that there’s a chance she might not be possessed and that she is just kind of losing her mind. I don’t know the author managed to capture that in such a visceral way but it had an impact on me.

JOSH:
How do you balance asking the reader to do something and also caring for the reader? How does that factor into your process?

LUCAS:
I mean it definitely used to. I guess when you’re a new writer you really do get concerned about  the notes you have to hit in this particular genre. I don’t know, now I kind of feel like if I’m having fun running with a piece, regardless of what I do with the genre’s tropes, I think that will show through and hopefully the reader will have fun in turn.

JOSH:
Now that you are a published author, obviously you are hitting a different stride. How do you define success? I mean, success is such a weird word, because there is such a thing as commercial success or monetary success. But as a writer in general, how do you view success? Is it about your own personal satisfaction?

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean I certainly would like to make a lot more money. I figure people in every profession kind of feel that way. But really, if I take a step back, I have to appreciate the fact that I’ve done a lot. Come Tuesday my 5th book will be published. I’ve done lots of public readings and I’ve done two panels at Austin Comic-Con. I don’t know, I mean kind of just have to appreciate each degree of success, I think

JOSH:
When you write, do you do research at all, and if you do, how much time would you say you spend on that?

LUCAS:
Yeah, I mean I guess it really depends on the project. If I’m writing an intense, personal piece then all the research I need is already there in my life experiences. But if I’m doing something in another time period or something that involves, I don’t know, police work or something, I’ll have to do some actual research. I guess the short answer is it really depends on the project.

JOSH:
Has most of your work been more personal and so it doesn’t require as much research?

LUCAS:
For someone my age I think I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of things. I’ve got this well that I can draw from without doing a tremendous amount of research.

JOSH:
Now, you mentioned that you do have this really strong energy to write. On average, how many hours a day are you writing?

LUCAS:
You know, I don’t usually count in hours. I shoot for a minimum of 800 words a day but usually I end up doing anywhere from 1500 to 2500 words a day.

JOSH:
Looking over the synopsis of some of your short stories and other stuff you done, I’m intrigued by whether you tend to focus on different periods in life, like childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.  

LUCAS:
A lot of times I do end up focusing on the present, though I’ve definitely written all over the place; I have kind of been all over the map as far as stages of life go. I haven’t done much about the elderly, so maybe that’s my next novel.

JOSH:
Those of us with interesting vocations like writing or acting or religious work tend to be less commercially successful in many ways, though we put a lot of work, energy, and passion and love into it. Do you think that writing for you is a spiritual practice? And I give you full freedom to define spiritual however you wish.

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean, at the risk of sounding corny or something like that, I really don’t think ideas come out of thin air. I think all artists are definitely channeling something. I don’t know if that’s humanity’s collective unconscious or chaos or something else. I don’t really think that is for me to say. But I think you would imagine a story is coming from somewhere and life experiences are only a piece of the puzzle. You’re in a type of zone when you write and you almost kind of have to hypnotize yourself into getting into that place because otherwise you know you’re worried about making a mistake or doing the dishes or paying your rent or whatever. And if you’re focused on something like that then you’re not going to be able to bring it and put it on the page.

JOSH:
Certain elements of isolation can be good if we were able to break free from some of those day-to-day routines and get into that creative space, one many people have compared to meditation in other spiritual practices.

LUCAS:
Definitely. I usually spend a tremendous amount of time meditating on what I want my first line to be because for some reason that first line is like a doorway. Once I get that first line down I can pretty much just go. It is interesting, but that’s how I used to write song lyrics back in my early twenties and then I kind of got away from that practice when I started writing prose. But then about 6 months ago I started reincorporating that practice into my prose and it’s actually worked out really well. I did something like a hundred and fifty thousand words during last year.

JOSH:
Let’s talk about Engines of Ruin, the collection of stories.

They all look really interesting. Were there particular stories in that group that really just came easy for you?

LUCAS:
Yeah, Occupy Babylon was probably the easiest one. And, in the case of Ghost Music, I got the idea, I had a title in my head for a while, I didn’t really have a story. Once I got a story idea I was actually writing it on my phone. At the time I was walking to class and I just basically wrote the whole thing on the phone, during these trips to class. So there there was an immediacy to it—to get the idea to the page quickly instead of filing it away in my brain, which you know can be hazardous because if you file it away like that by the time you sit down and write it you may not see it as that exciting to you anymore. I’ve got to get it on the page, even if it’s just a few sentences or just a general outline of the idea. This seems to further my enthusiasm for the project, so I can maintain it over the course of writing.

JOSH:
Were there other stories in this collection that were actually more of a slow burn, you know, in terms of getting them done?

LUCAS:
Video Inferno, I guess. I wrote the first draft in about a week and then it took me four years of really poking at it to get it into the form that it is now. I went through so many revisions. It’s a very surreal story, so when you’re playing with the surrealism, on the surface what you know is happening might not make sense. That requires a little bit more calculation and attention to detail.

JOSH:
What were some of your favorite characters in these stories?

LUCAS:
Definitely the rock star. I mean, I’ve entertained becoming a rock star at least once in my life. Also, the bartending preacher. Actually, this came out of a conversation I had with somebody. She was somebody I used to work with at a previous job. She was like a fundamentalist or whatever and she said it would be a total fall from grace if a preacher were you know, to quit his job and start bartending. I actually disagreed with her because I thought, you know, being a bartender is almost like being a preacher.

JOSH:
You mention that The Last Easy Rider is more of a manifesto than a story?

LUCAS:
That goes back to the spiritual question you asked earlier. Basically, the main character is a version of me who is driving in this beat up camper van, you know, across the American highways, and encountering ghosts and demons and other shady characters. I thought it was essentially an interesting metaphor for me navigating my subconscious, even down to the van.

JOSH:
Let’s shift to your new book, We Are the Accused.

Image result for we are the accused lucas mangum

I was reading through the synopsis and wow–there’s some interesting stuff there. I also wonder what didn’t make the final manuscript. Were there certain things you had to edit out?

LUCAS:
Yeah, it just had a lot of characters and a subplot to glue together in the initial draft. Then I got further along and I didn’t think that they fit together as much as I would have liked them to. So I ended up deleting 20,000 words, more or less, in the original work.

JOSH:
How do you feel when you delete that much?

LUCAS:
It was difficult. I mean, there’s definitely a sense of loss or a grieving process involved. But I should say that I deleted it from the manuscript but I still have the text available; I didn’t destroy them forever.

JOSH:
How do you select names for characters?

LUCAS:
Usually friends. Specifically for this one I just went through my Facebook friends and picked out names I thought were interesting. I would take some person’s first name and another person’s last name and combine them for one character.

JOSH:
Any significance to the setting, Blue Brook, Pennsylvania?

LUCAS:
Yes, it’s basically Bristol Township and Bensalem with a little bit of Levittown, but all is one town. I think even Doylestown gets a mention in this book.

JOSH:
Do you have any hidden secrets that only a few people will catch?

LUCAS:
Of course, yeah, definitely. I’ll put stuff in there that will be there for people to catch. There’s this character in Gods of the Dark Web, and one of my friends called me immediately after reading it as and was just like: “Oh, thanks for turning me into a [devious character] in the book.” Sorry.

JOSH:
I’m sure that was a great phone call.
So how long did it take you to write this novel?

LUCAS:
The first half of the novel took me a ridiculously long time, like I’m talking a year-and-a-half just writing the first half. It was because I was going back and rewriting and fixing things as I went along. And because I was able to write the first half in this way, the second half was quick and pretty much set up for me; I didn’t really need to second-guess myself at all.  

JOSH:
What do you hope the readers will experience when they read this and what type of journey do you hope they go on?

LUCAS:
I hope they have fun, first and foremost. I hope that some readers will maybe, you know, look a little deeper into it and hopefully notice the spiritual questions raised in the book and the social ones as well. I think if you know what you’re looking for you’ll find it and I would hope that people would kind of read beyond the surface.

JOSH:
In your work you often include a sense that each individual has a darkness inside, for lack of a better term, and that this darkness manifests itself outside. It’s a universal idea, right? We have the sort of Yin and Yang thing inside of us: light and dark. Do your characters tend to constantly live in that struggle or is there any sort of resolution, or better said, a realization of that struggle?

LUCAS:
I mean, my work does sometimes end on a hopeful note, though the more recent book might be considered a tragedy, but there are certainly moments of revelation.

JOSH:
Thanks, Lucas, this had been great. Anything else to add about We Are the Accused?

LUCAS:
It’s out on January 15th and on Kindle as well. I believe the paperback will be along shortly after that.

Interested in checking out Lucas’ new novel? Click HERE.

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Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

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You know it must be Advent if on the in later December we’re reading from another minor Hebrew prophet, in this case Zephaniah. It would be a stretch to say that many people know the book of Zephaniah well [Jewish or Christian alike].

Though, come on–I mean, he was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, born in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah—and no, I didn’t make up those names, and yes, it sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, and sure, some of us who went to Divinity school memorized that.

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But all kidding aside, as with other Hebrew prophets of ages long past, I do think good ol’ Zephy has something to say to us today.

A little context please? Okay, yes.

The cliff notes version of what scholars say about this prophetic book: when was it written? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 698 BCE-586 BCE, depending on who you talk to. Where was it written? Jerusalem. What was going on? Well, lots. First off, the Israelites were being bad, apparently; they weren’t obeying Yahweh’s commands as they were supposed to. Maybe they were just settling back in after a few generations of exile? Whatever the case, Zephaniah’s author called attention to the Israelite’s behavior as making Yahweh mad. So the book’s tone is ticked off, and it’s spelled out with these sections: the coming judgement of Judah, the great day of the Lord, judgement on enemies, wickedness of Jerusalem, and the punishment of nations. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

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But Zephaniah ends differently. The book closes out with God/Yahweh being much nicer, less angry, and dare I say—loving and gentle? Yahweh is present, protective of Israel, and happy to welcome people back. Apparently, Yahweh has a lovely singing voice too and will be showing off the holy pipes.

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More important than the Holy Karaoke, people will be healed, the homeless will find places to live. People who were hated will now be accepted. Everyone comes home. It’s a celebration of great joy! Now that’s more like it, Zephy…

And that’s what brings me to why I think this minor prophet still has something prophetic to say to us today so many years later.

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

Some of us have been exiled and know what it feels like to be marginalized or excluded. Some of us have lived though times of great suffering, loneliness, and despair. Some of us are going through that right now. Still others find very few reasons to live any longer. And many today are just tired—tired of a depressing and heavy news cycle that continues to make us aware of the great pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dies simply because she can’t get enough water to drink while detained by U.S. immigration enforcement. Large groups of humans sprawled out on top of steam vents all across Philadelphia, just to stay warm. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others specifically targeted by violent people. Individuals still left out, refused jobs, discriminated against in hospitals and other public spaces, simply because of who they love or how they identify or express gender. The Christian religion on the whole, has become known more as a perpetrator of hateful rhetoric and alliance with political leaders and lobbying monies and ignorance of child abuse and discrimination than it is known for love, peacemaking, and service to others.

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

Yahweh might as well be the same kinda angry at Western Christianity and at society in general. We’re not really fulfilling our part of the bargain—to heal the sick, give homes to the homeless, gather in the outcasts, and love each other.

Sure, we can put up pretty lights and sing carols and talk about joy, but I would argue we can’t. Not until we admit where we are, in Zephaniah’s world, in this world. Not until we recognize the deep suffering going on. Not until we are incensed by the injustice in our world. Not until we talk about our own feelings of despair, heaviness, and apathy. We have to go there, if we truly want to get to the joy part.

Rumi, the brilliant Islamic poet, wrote of sorrow being the prerequisite for joy. Sorrow makes space for joy to enter in. Old roots are pulled up within us and new growth takes place. Only then will joy flow through us like a river.

We’ve been talking the last two weeks about the promise of inclusion, about what it looks like/feels like to be excluded and then finally accepted and invited in. And that this promise of inclusion is a powerful promise to believe in, because if we do, we will seek inclusion for those we see on the margins.

See, it’s a decision to believe in the promise of inclusion. And it’s a decision to think about joy as rising out of sorrow and suffering.

And I think what bends us towards those decisions is an understanding that love itself is not an emotion, but an active choice as well.

In the world of Zephaniah, Yahweh made a love-deal with the Israelites. But the moment they started mistreating each other and oppressing people and manipulating, there was no more Mr. Nice Yahweh. Because love for Yahweh and for the Israelites has to be an active choice, not just a feeling.

And this is why love has tremendous power to create a better world—in ourselves, and on this planet. There is great power in sitting with someone in their grief, with loving patience and a loving ear with loving acceptance. There is power in standing side by side with someone who feels pushed down, choosing to love by standing with them. There is power in treating newcomers with loving hospitality, power in lovingly learning about someone’s culture or religion; power in mentoring children and youth with loving patience; power in lovingly lifting up or even carrying those who are experiencing extreme mental or physical challenges; there is power in choosing to lovingly care for the earth, the animals, trees, and ecosystems. Love as an action is powerful.

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.

The Promise of Inclusion II

Baruch 5:1; 7-9  The Inclusive Bible
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. For God has ordered that every mountain and the ancient hills be made low and the valleys lifted up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of God’s glory, with the compassion and justice that come from the Most High.

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It’s still Advent. Week 2. Got some more Hebrew prophetic literature in the queue. This time, it’s Baruch, not well-known, not in most Bibles, and not even considered a prophet!

Resultado de imagen para tell me moreBaruch ben Neriah (ברוך בן נריה) was is believed to have been the scribe, secretary, and devoted friend of the prophet Jeremiah. Think of Baruch as the one who put up with Jeremiah’s gloomy and doom prophetic babbling and actually wrote it down. Think of Baruch as the one who was exiled in Babylonia and then in Egypt, and wrote to all the Israelite exiles, as well as those who were still in Judah.

So why isn’t Baruch as a book in the “typical” Jewish and Christian scriptures? Well, it depends on who you ask. Short version: some didn’t believe [centuries ago] that it was “divinely” inspired. How they made that decision, well…up for debate. Anyway, some just didn’t think Baruch’s writings were prophetic enough.

But…Baruch is in the Septuagint, called the Greek Old Testament, because it is the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I’m not trying to prove anything here, I’m just saying that it’s Advent and the Hebrew prophetic literature is essential reading and this dude Baruch was with Jeremiah all the time.

And he knew what it felt like to experience the fall of  the Jerusalem temple and the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. He understood what it felt like to feel abandoned and excluded, even at the hands of Yahweh, the One the Jews looked to for help and protection. So Baruch, the so-called non-prophet has something to say.

And Baruch can help us embrace the promise of inclusion.

Resultado de imagen para inclusionWhat is inclusion? A reminder of what inclusion is not:

It is not saying that “everyone is equal and the same” and “can’t we all just get along?”

Let’s be honest, please. People are not considered equal in this world. Since the beginning, humans have created unequal societies in which some get mistreated and others get privilege. We must acknowledge this. If you’ve ever been on the side of the marginalized or the excluded, this is reality. If you’ve only been on the privileged side of things, it is more difficult for you, but not impossible, to recognize and acknowledge the inequality and exclusion of society.

So, for the sake of this conversation, inclusion is:

a transformative promise that someone who has been historically excluded/left out, will now be included/invited in.

I recognize, for example, that I am a person with privilege. I am Anglo-European, U.S. born, cisgender, male, straight, well educated, English is my first language, and I was raised a Christian. How many boxes did I check?

So inclusion for me is not about me feeling left out. I’m really not excluded. But many are. So inclusion for me is about using my privilege for good and helping those who are excluded gain their rightful place at the table. Inclusion.

But I say all that, not because I’m such a nice person or whatever, but because I have experienced that all other living beings around me are part of me and I of them.

See, I think the promise of inclusion is only made a reality if we consider all other human beings—and if animals and trees and even the very creepy, crawly creatures and insects are part of us and us of them—only then will the promise of inclusion be realized and the power of inclusion evident.

And I also am drawn to another Advent theme, that of Peace.

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Peace is NOT the absence of conflict, however. Don’t imagine peace as a serene scene, or calm waters, or quiet and calm. Peace can be loud, subversive, full of conflict, and can even stir the pot even more. It is Shalom.

Peace is wholeness. Peace is justice. Peace is balance. Peace is connectedness. Peace is inclusive.

If we are at peace with ourselves, at peace with one another, at peace with the animals, the plants, the natural world—we are by our own decision, inclusive.

By being at peace with ourselves and at peace with all living beings, we embrace the promise of inclusion. We recognize our deep connection to each other, a connection that is full of diversity and disagreement and teeming with contradictions and a beautiful mosaic of difference.

I wish to close this post with some profoundly relevant stuff from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during Advent in the 1960s. This is from The Trumpet of Conscience.

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Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as [siblings] or we are all going to perish together as fools.

Now let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and goodwill toward [all] is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Everyone is somebody because they are a child of God.

Excerpted from The Trumpet of Conscience, published by Beacon Press, 2010. Copyright © 1967 by Martin Luther king, Jr. Foreword copyright © 1968 by Coretta Scott King. All rights reserved. Foreword copyright © 2010 Marian Wright Edelman.

 

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Resultado de imagen para one purple candleDuring this time of year for Christians, called Advent, Hebrew prophetic literature is what is often read leading up to Christmas Eve. I wonder, though, do most Christians know what they are reading? Do they know that these prophets were telling the story of the Jewish people? Do they know that none of these prophets were speaking about Jesus of Nazareth? It’s an eyebrow-raiser for sure, for Christians to step back during this season to realize that it’s not about them.

No, the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures are Jewish stories, and the book of Jeremiah is no exception. So why do Christians read the Jewish prophetic literature during this season? Because in order to better understand the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew himself, Christians must have a context and a history and a story.

And that story is about the Israelites: their nation, Judah, was destroyed, conquered. Their rulers and religious leaders were taken away to a distant land. This happened something like 600 years before Jesus was born. The Israelites were taken to Babylon, this was their exile. The glory days of King David were long gone. I can hear Bruce Springsteen singing in the background…

And this is why Jeremiah as a prophetic book is just flat-out depressing, dark, and gloomy.

But oh, that’s what makes it work….

Because amidst all the darkness and despair and suffering there is still a glimmer of hope. And though Jeremiah is pretty heavy-handed, all of a sudden the prophet says that a better day is surely coming, and Yahweh is the one making the promise. The promise is to restore that which was devastated and broken, to repair and heal. The promise is for justice, and peace.

No doubt when you are ripped from your home and way of life you feel excluded from the good graces of life and from the possible love and care of a Creator who seems to have forgotten you. It is not until you are restored, until you are included when you were once excluded, that you feel whole again. That’s the thing about inclusion. It’s not just identifying who is “in” and who is “out.”

Inclusion is about a transformative promise that someone who has been historically excluded/left out, will now be included/invited in.

The hope of inclusion is a powerful one. It has driven major justice movements around the world. And inclusion drives the story of the Israelite people; inclusion drives the story of Jesus of Nazareth. And, I would argue, the promise of inclusion can move us past even hope, which can sometimes be fleeting or seem superficial. What if we didn’t hope for justice and peace in this world, and instead, we believed in the promise of inclusion?

What if inclusion shaped our thoughts and actions in our daily lives? It would change us. Think about it—if you’ve ever been party to a racist, sexist, homophobic/transphobic joke, and didn’t speak up because you were afraid of being excluded from that particular group, what if you weren’t afraid of exclusion? What if you believed in the promise of inclusion? You would speak up, not to paint yourself as any better, but simply to point out that inclusion is a promise to humanity.

This promise of inclusion would drive us in our city councils and local governments to get rid of the boundaries and regulations that keep certain people out of certain boroughs and neighborhoods; we wouldn’t block immigrant caravans with soldiers and police and signs saying “go home, you’re not welcome”; churches and other places of faith would stop excluding gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people, not because it’s becoming a social norm, but because they believe in the promise of inclusion.

Being included when you’ve been excluded before gives you the ability to feel and believe:

“I’m valued, I have a place. I am equal. I am affirmed as I am.”

If inclusion drives us, and we believe it is a promise, then we will see ourselves differently. Those who have been made to feel lesser will be transformed by the welcome they receive. Those who have been left on the margins will enter the open circle, as they are. It is more than a hope, which can fade. It is more than a dream, which can be forgotten.

It is a promise.

 

Let’s take a brief look at the concept of Gratitude across world religions [this by no means doing justice to each tradition]:

Resultado de imagen para gratitude

Judaism: The first and last prayers of the day are of gratitude. For the Jewish people, all things come from Yahweh and thus their lives are filled with this recognition. A prayer is said upon hearing good or even bad news.

Christianity: For followers of Jesus of Nazareth, God is the giver of all gifts and the ultimate foundation for thankfulness. God ‘s generosity provides the model for how Christians are to deal with other people. The greatest commandment, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself is a gratitude commandment. Thankfulness to the Creator and thankfulness for others. Even the most universal Sacrament of Christianity, Communion [called the Eucharist], comes from the Greek word eurucharistia, which means thanksgiving.

Islam: in the Holy Koran, the necessity for gratitude and thankfulness to Allah is emphasized. The prophet Muhammad said, “Gratitude for the abundance you have received is the best insurance that the abundance will continue.” Daily prayers for Muslims do not petition God, but instead show everlasting praise and adoration to God for life and mercy. The month of Ramadan when fasting takes place is intended to lead a person to a state of gratitude.

Buddhism: for Buddhists, gratitude is the main currency of the “economy of gift.” They give prayerful thanks for all that life has to offer, including the challenges and suffering, because it helps them to appreciate the gifts, and to become more compassionate.

Hinduism: Hindus show gratitude in many small acts of hospitality, and through service toward the divine presence, both in their homes and at temple shrines. Hindus celebrate a number of festivals signifying the importance of gratitude. Guru Poornima is celebrated in gratitude to teachers, to those who have taught skills and to all those who teach something that shapes people’s lives. Harvest festivals like Pongal pay respect to the Sun God for helping with a bounty harvest and also thank the rain, seeds, cattle and the farmers.

Baha’i Faith: The Baha’i teachings emphasize an attitude and lifestyle of gratitude. Bahai’s are to step back, see their glass as much more than half full, and be thankful for life. Abdu’l Baha said: Thank God with all your hearts that such a privilege has been given unto you to spread love across the earth. For a life devoted to praise is not too long in which to thank God for such a favour. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 67.

Sikhism: For Sikhs, gratitude is the center of their faith practice. Siri Singh Sahib teaches that when you are grateful to God “You will be great and you will be full.” Sikhs also emphasize that  “By your ego you get yourself, which is very earthly and limited. Whenever you want to get to your own unlimited self, you have to relate with gratitude.” –Yogi Bhajan 7/10/75

Jainism: Though Jains do not believe in God per se, Jains are constantly expressing gratitude in prayers and actions. The act of fasting, which Jains are famous for, is about gratitude.

Native Americans: the First Nations People have always had a deep tradition of routinely giving thanks. They have particularly given attention and gratitude to the animals and plants that provide sustenance or medicine. The Iroquois created a thanksgiving prayer to the Creator for the earth and the living things upon it– birds, rivers, medicinal grasses and herbs, wind, rain, sunshine, the moon and stars, etc.

Paganism: Pagans, including those who identify as Wiccan, believe in the notion that if we surround ourselves with good, we will attract positive things back to us. Part of that theory is that by showing gratitude, you can cultivate more good things to come your way. Gratitude rituals are a common thread of their practice.

So gratitude pervades spiritual traditions. What does science say? There have been various studies done about gratitude and its association with well-being, suggesting that people who are more grateful have higher levels of subjective well-being. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships.

Perhaps it is because grateful people have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance and the ability to positively deal with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpret and grow from experiences, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem.

So what do you think? How do you practice gratitude? How does it affect you?

Mark 10:17-22

What possesses you?

Okay, weird question?
What I mean to ask is: what consumes you, what drives you?

What possesses you?

Is it your career? Are you one of those people who is completely driven by your job and all the things related to it? Do you find yourself thinking and talking about your profession more than anything else?

Or is it your family, if you have kids? Are you mostly driven by what your kids are doing, how they feel, behave, learn?

Or is it something else? What possesses you, drives you, consumes you?

Now bear with me here, because I realize this can be a nuanced conversation. I am aware that for some of you, this question may lead you down a difficult path. Perhaps you have struggled for years with addictions and so, this can drive you. Or for any of you who suffer from depression or anxiety, this can consume you, no doubt. So please know that I am not downplaying that and I absolutely acknowledge addiction, illness, disease, and chemical imbalances as real issues that people deal with every day.

What I’d like for us to do is to focus on the things that drive us overall, apart from those things we cannot control or are part of our chemical makeup or a result of great trauma we suffered. I’d like for us to focus on the driving force for each of us, the thing or things that get us out of bed in the morning and keep us alive.

And I acknowledge the amazingly courageous people I know who fight addiction or mental illness every day and keep on living. Because this is at the core of the question. How do they keep on going?

And I’d like to address this by looking at this Mark Gospel story about a person who clearly was driven by questions about salvation, eternal life, legacy, etc. The man [called a ruler and a young person by Matthew’s and Luke’s versions] was also rich. He owned things—most likely a lot of land. He possessed property. He went to Jesus of Nazareth, because he respected Jesus as a religious teacher. Jesus would know the answer to a question he had. The rich man wanted to inherit eternal life. He was used to getting what he wanted, you see. He thought of salvation as something to buy or sell or to obtain. It was a possession. Religion, for this person, was about keeping the commandments that Moses shared with the Israelites. Don’t do this, don’t do that, etc., etc. Following these rules allowed him to maintain his upper hand in society, to fit in, to be respected, to maintain control. Follow the rules, get the reward.

Wrong.

Jesus tells him that he still lacks something. Ironically, what he lacks is because of what he owns. He has a lot of possessions. Material things. On the surface he has a lot. But he lacks the most important thing. What was that important thing? Well, it seems like Jesus didn’t say. What Jesus does do is tell him to do the most logical thing: sell your things, give money to those who need it most, and then you’re good. Follow this way of love.

Sounds good, right? Happy ending to this story?

Nope.

The rich guy doesn’t jump up and down with joy, now knowing what he has to do. I mean, it would have been fairly simple for him to give things away. And Jesus wasn’t even asking him to give it all away! But instead, the man gets sad about it. He expected Jesus to perhaps tell him about some other commandment or rule that he didn’t know about. Maybe there was just one more thing he had to check off his list and then he’d be okay. But no—he was told to do the very thing that he felt that he couldn’t do. He couldn’t give up material possessions. He could not follow such a way. For him, wealth was having things; wealth was not expressing love, not giving to others. Following the religious rules made more sense to him, even comforted him. But now that salvation fell outside the rules, his world turned upside down. He grieved, because he lost something—his ability to control things, to buy and sell life.

As Jesus often does, though, he invites this rich man to be healed. Get up, go, change, be healed. Follow this way. And I suspect that the story doesn’t really give us an ending so that we are aware that it’s not so easy to just change in the moment. The rich man was grieving because he felt that he could not give up his possessions, he could not see a way to be possessed by love. But that was in the moment. He left the scene—probably went home, probably thought more about it. And maybe, must maybe he started small. Perhaps he gave away some of his material wealth. And it probably felt great. And then maybe he gave away some more. And eventually, maybe this person was no longer possessed by what he owned. After a while, maybe he discovered what true riches were.

Friends, we can be possessed or consumed by things that are our “ultimate concern” like ambition, religion, money, power, politics or whatever. We can be owned by a number of things. And so we are offered a healing choice, I think, to instead be driven by love. To let go of the things that possess us and drag us down or hold us back. To walk forward and not backwards. To give more than we try to obtain. To make love our reason for existing—not pleasing people, not “making a name for ourselves,” not obsessing over legacy or retirement or status or religious rules or sexual norms or gender binaries or nationalities or affiliations or ethnicity.

What if we are driven by love?

What if love is in front of us, behind us, around us, and in us?

*To all of you who beautiful and courageous humans out there who wrestle with addiction and mental illness, I love you. It is your life: your courage and honesty and the way you show love to others in spite of all you go through–that inspires me.

Be driven by love, because you are loved.

An Ally Identity

Mark 9:38-41; 49-50     The Message (MSG)

38 John spoke up, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

39-41 Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.

49-50 “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”

What is an ally?

Image result for lgbt ally

The organization GLAAD [not an acronym] defines an LGBTQIA+ ally as:

-a listener.
-open-minded.
-willing to talk.
-inclusive and inviting of LGBT friends to hang out with your friends and family.
-not assuming that friends and co-workers are straight.
-not afraid to speak out when Anti-LGBT comments and jokes are made.
-someone who confronts their own prejudices and bias
-a defender against discrimination.
-a believer that all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, should be treated with dignity and respect.

At the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto this November, I’ll be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How to Be an Interfaith Ally.” Here are some highlights of the definition of an interfaith ally:

Image result for interfaith allyAn interfaith ally:

-Is aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings about spiritual identity.
-Builds religious literacy
-Is aware of current social and political events.
-Treats everyone as individuals
-Does not obligate anyone, regardless of their outward appearance, to share or speak about that in any context.
-Avoids assumptions and gossip. Allows the individual to share his/her/their identity in their time.
-Uses inclusive and appropriate language and confronts harmful, oppressive language.
-Shows support for or encourages creation of the Interfaith community.

See, there are many specific ways to contextualize what an ally is. An LGBTQIA+ ally will look different than an interfaith ally in certain cases. There are specific actions that apply to specific situations. Overall, though, an ally in any context shares important characteristics and behaviors.

For the sake of this conversation, allow me to define an ally as someone who:

-stands with those who are not heard, marginalized, disenfranchised, or oppressed.
-listens well and does not judge.
-learns, learns, and learns some more!
-recognizes diversity and difference, not as a threat, but as an essential fabric of humanity.
-knows when to step back and when to step up.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about human development [evolution, change, becoming].

I’ve noticed that many adults in our society sadly believe a narrative about themselves—that they are incapable of change. That their perspectives are locked in place and that the way they see themselves and the world is static. I don’t buy this for one second. I fully believe in the capacity of all humans [no matter the age] to continue to develop and grow, to evolve, to become. We are built that way. But yes, as adults it does require us to make more of an effort in our development. We first have to embrace the possibility of growth change; then we have to seek it out, care for it, be willing to leave behind old paradigms, and be willing to listen and learn.

This relates directly to being an ally in any context, because in order to be an ally we have to confront our own prejudices and assumptions. It is necessary for us to consider other perspectives that we previously viewed as impossible or crazy, or perhaps we never even considered such perspectives.

So to be an ally we have to evolve.

I look at Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel stories and it jumps out at me—Jesus was an ally. Jesus stood with and for those who were voiceless and oppressed, including but not limited to:

Widows, children, lepers, the sick, the materially poor, Samaritans [the ethnically oppressed], the homeless, the unclean [religiously marginalized people].

Jesus was an ally. And if you look close enough, Jesus was trying to teach and mentor others to be allies. Those who followed Jesus didn’t join a religion or a church. They followed a path. They lived a new kind of way. They shifted away from old paradigms to new ones. They sought to create heaven on earth by balancing what was out of whack in society. They were changing, developing, becoming. And they were called to be allies.

But the followers of Jesus struggled with this. They argued over who was the best ally, the greatest follower. They struggled to listen to each other. They carried deep and historical prejudices with them. It wasn’t easy for them to learn how to be allies. Case in point—in this particular Mark story Jesus’ followers aren’t happy that someone outside of their group is healing someone. How dare someone else do the good work THEY were supposed to be doing! But Jesus called them out on this. “If someone is for us, they are not against us.” Quite the paradigm shift, no? We often hear the opposite of that phrase. See, Jesus didn’t care if the insider group did the work of healing or if people outside the group did it. Part of being an ally is not letting your ego get the best of you. It’s celebrating the good things others are doing, even if you don’t get any credit or benefit from it.

And Jesus, in this Markan section, closes with a healing word of wisdom: Everyone will be salted with fire. Remain salty, and be at peace. Salt and fire were symbols and actual tools of healing in Jesus’ time. This remark is about the ally community—that yes, there will be times when we screw up. We will say or do something hurtful, even if we don’t mean it. But there’s always a chance to heal. Fire and salt. Wounds are healed. People are welcomed again. We learn and grow from our mistakes. And this leads us to be at peace with one another.

This ally thing is hard, no doubt. It’s messy, it’s risky, and it’s sometimes unpopular. But it’s SO WORTH IT.

Add to this discussion. How do you know when someone is your ally? Reply in the comment section.

Further, if you wish to have some resources about how you can be an ally, visit here.

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